The Invisible Hand That Designed Your City

Years of subtle changes to land use and zoning have slowly become the invisible forces that shape our behavior, whether we realize it or not.

“Why build a sidewalk if nobody walks there?”

In many cities, several decades of growth took place without ordinances requiring sidewalks. This resulted in large developed areas that lack any viable pedestrian infrastructure. Even in places with sidewalks, street trees that make walking more comfortable and appealing may have been cut down because traffic engineering standards determined they impeded sight lines or created a “fixed object hazard” for fast-moving motorists. Either way, without adequate provisions for people on foot, walking becomes uncomfortable, unsafe, and undesirable.

Well, at least they got a crosswalk… (Photo by Sarah Kobos)

“I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes,” said the zoning code.

Parking ratios often require that more land be dedicated to off-street parking than to the commercial buildings they support. Other common zoning regulations insist upon deep setbacks that push stores away from the street, while maximum floor area ratios limit the amount of building floor space allowed on a single lot. Because of rules like these, buildings are spread out and exist in isolation from one another. This is great if you’re trying to quarantine people during an epidemic, but it doesn’t exactly facilitate walking from place to place.

Photo by Sarah Kobos

Blah, blah, blah… Zzzzzzzzz

Most people don’t have the time or energy to care about all these regulations. It’s like a light switch: you flip the switch, the light comes on, and you don’t stop to think about how it works or why. Who has time to ponder the nuances of land use regulations or street design standards when you’ve got kids to feed, soccer games to attend and a full-time job that keeps you awake at night?

What people care about is quality of life. The trick is getting folks to understand the connection between quality of life, the built environment, and all those nitty-gritty rules and regulations that make up the invisible hand of city design. It’s important that average citizens talk about what they want for their city. It’s equally important that city leaders translate these desires into the ordinances and policies that govern how our cities evolve and grow.

Your city is too important to leave to the experts.

If average citizens don’t speak up, these boring regulations will invariably be written by the loudest people in the room: the big developers, real estate professionals, and construction lobbyists who know exactly what they want and how to get it. These are the folks who understand how rules and regulations influence city design—as well as their bottom line. It’s their job to show up at public meetings to ensure their viewpoint is heard. And while there are some truly visionary folks in the development industry, it’s been my experience that a vast majority want nothing more than complete preservation of the status quo. I suppose it’s understandable that businessmen want a predictable business climate, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they will advocate for what’s best for the future of the city or a majority of its citizens.

I’m fascinated by how often a small minority of private interests are able to successfully overwhelm a public debate. Citizens will be surveyed, and a large majority will indicate a desire to have more choices—they want to walk and bike and use transit, but currently don’t feel they have safe and viable options. They love traditional neighborhoods, and want to see more places like those old main streets they love. It’s clear that they want options that aren’t being built.

Visual preference surveys indicate that people would like to see more places like this. (Photo by Sarah Kobos)

But when it comes time to update the regulating documents—the land use map, the zoning code, the subdivision regulations and other nerdy standards—the voices of average citizens are rarely heard. They simply don’t know how or when or with whom to engage.

The simple answer is that you have to get involved. Find out who the decision-makers are in your city. This may include a land development department, city planners, transportation planners, civil engineers and/or a local planning commission. Ask people to meet for coffee and don’t be afraid to ask questions. You’re a citizen and a taxpayer, which makes you the customer.

Think about what your city needs to do differently, and see if you can find other people who share your concerns. Thanks to social media and electronic communications, it’s never been easier to connect with people and get engaged. If you care about transportation options, find out if there are any local bicycle/pedestrian or transit advocacy groups. If not, start one! Get on email lists and join Facebook groups that inform people about opportunities for public education and input.

Don’t be intimidated. All this stuff can get sort of nerdy, but it’s not rocket science. The reality is that you’re already an expert: you live in your city every day, so you understand its strengths and weaknesses. Focus on the outcomes that would make life better for everyone. Pay attention, read up on best practices and be open to new ideas. Then get your hands on the documents that govern your city, so you can figure out how to make the “invisible hand” of land use and transportation regulations work for you. And then, someday, when it’s time to head to the store, you’ll have a choice of how you want to get there.

Article by Sarah Kobos originally published at Strong Towns. Sarah Kobos has been a regular contributor for Strong Towns since 2016. She is an urban design nerd and community activist from Tulsa, OK. Her superpower is the ability to transform almost any topic into a conversation about zoning. Whenever possible, she explores other cities and writes about urban design and land use issues at Republished under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Cover Image: FLICKR / Christopher Allen